Every year, I engage the graduate students in my public-health master’s class in a discussion of the determinants of health — what are the factors that contribute to health and disease?
And every year, I ask them what is missing from the somewhat standard set of determinants in the literature. This year, as has often been the case in previous years, some of them have identified religion/spirituality as missing, which always makes for a lively discussion.
Of course, the first thing is what do we mean by religion and spirituality and how do they differ? In 2003, several papers emanating from a Working Group on Research on Spirituality, Religion and Health established by the U.S. National Institutes of Health were published in the journal American Psychologist.
In introducing this special section, William Miller and Carl Thoresen considered religion to be a social phenomenon; “social entities or institutions … defined by their boundaries.” They noted that “religions are also characterized by other non-spiritual concerns and goals (e.g., cultural, economic, political, social).”
However, they also noted that individuals can be religious, “implying some form of adherence to beliefs, practices, and/or precepts of religion.”
This, to my mind, is the same as having a faith, or being part of a faith; indeed, in the U.S., the term “faith communities” is often used to denote all the various forms of religions.
Spirituality is harder to define; they note that in the Oxford English Dictionary there are 10 pages of reference material. They identify two themes: “being concerned with life’s most animating and vital principle or quality” (life force or energy), and “a broad focus on the immaterial features of life.”
Concepts of “inner peace” and “a transcendent relationship with that which is sacred in life” are also part of the picture.
So what does this have to do with health? There has been quite a lot of research in this area, especially since the 1990s, including special sections in a variety of well-respected journals and even a journal called Religion and Health. Relationships between religious variables and physical and mental health and substance use have been described, and can have both positive and negative effects.
I come at it from a somewhat different perspective. I am not religious, belong to no faith, and wouldn’t describe myself as spiritual. But as a life scientist, I see our relationship with nature in part in spiritual terms. The great Harvard socio-biologist E.O. Wilson proposed the concept of biophilia — we have an innate need for nature.
Obviously that need is in part simply biological; we need the air, water and food that comes from nature, and in the case of humans, we also need materials and fuels.
But there is more to it than that. As my students frequently note, and as I myself experience, being in nature, experiencing its quiet beauty and being at times awe-struck by its raw power, is a spiritual experience. Who among us has not felt that? Here, too, there is a body of interesting research.
In a 2015 review on the topic of health and nature contact, Ming Kuo noted research that shows that forest walks are associated with positive changes in a range of physiological measures linked to inflammation and chronic disease. And she notes that: “Contact with nature has a host of other physiological effects related to relaxation or stress reduction,” that “the experience of nature helps shift individuals toward a state of deep relaxation” and that “regular experiences of awe are tied to healthier, lower levels of inflammatory cytokine.”
If we are to manage our way through the massive global ecological changes we have created, I firmly believe that we need to experience the deep relaxation, awe and vitality that comes from nature and to find — perhaps rediscover — the sacred in nature.
I am not suggesting an organized religion, but the cultivation of a deep understanding of our involvement with and dependence upon the totality of the natural world.
If we respect and cherish the Earth, we will be able to live more in harmony with it. That would be good for our health, as well as the health of the ecosystems we live within.
Dr. Trevor Hancock is a professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s school of public health and social policy.